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Haiti's prime minister is facing mounting pressure to step down amid the unrest


In Haiti, Prime Minister Ariel Henry is facing mounting pressure to step down. Last week, gang leader Jimmy Cherizier, also known as Barbecue, warned that the country would face civil war, even genocide, if Ariel Henry remained in power. Meanwhile, the prime minister has been stuck in Puerto Rico since last Tuesday. He couldn't fly into the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince after gangs seized control of the airport. Associated Press correspondent Danica Coto joins us to share the latest updates. Welcome to the program.

DANICA COTO: Thank you very much for having me.

RASCOE: Can you tell us how this is playing out in the streets? The country is entering its second week in a state of emergency. What's happening?

COTO: Things are pretty bad. I spoke with a U.S. missionary who has been living in Haiti for more than 40 years, and she said it's the worst that she's ever seen it, and I quote her as saying, "it's total anarchy."

And keep in mind that Haiti has been through many tumultuous periods previously, including, you know, a coup d'etat, a revolving door of presidents, prime ministers, revolts, violent demonstrations. You know, a lot of people are trying to leave Haiti, and they can't. The main international airports are closed. And the attacks continue. Just on Friday evening and well into the night, there was heavy gunfire reported near the National Palace in downtown Port-au-Prince, with witnesses saying that they saw dozens and even hundreds of armed men fighting police near what is considered one of the last bastions of Haiti's government.

RASCOE: And what does this mean for, like, basic necessities? Like, is food coming into the country?

COTO: Food is not coming into the country, which is a huge concern, keeping in mind that more than half the population is in dire need of food and about 1.4 million are starving. So they were already starving before this happened. And midweek, the main operator of the port in Port-au-Prince, the capital - they suspended operations given the ongoing violence, and then gangs began looting containers, and these containers have food that is spoiling. It has critical medical supplies. Stores that - you know, where Haiti's most impoverished people can afford to buy things - they're running out of basic items - bread, milk, cereal. There are dozens, even hundreds, of empty water jugs across the country just sitting on stands in grocery stores. Part of this is due to gangs blocking roads, so, you know, trucks can't get through to deliver supplies. And this is impacting Haiti's least powerful.

RASCOE: So can we step back here for a second? Like, why is there such violent opposition to the prime minister at this point?

COTO: There was always opposition to begin with, ever since he was sworn in less than two weeks after the July 7, 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moise. And at that time, those who opposed him said, well, he hasn't been elected by the people. At the time, the prime minister was Claude Joseph, and - but the international community, specifically the Core Group, which is a group of key international diplomats - they issued a statement basically saying that Ariel Henry was going to be the the new prime minister. And they did not mention Claude Joseph in their statement.

So to start with, you know, people were upset that he wasn't elected. And much of the anger has to do with the fact that poverty has deepened, and there's a lot of insecurity. And the attacks, the coordinated gang attacks that began February 29, occurred a day after Caribbean leaders said that Haiti's prime minister promised to hold general elections in mid-2025. Again, that was the most recent promise. In 2022 and 2023, he made similar promises to hold elections soon but noting that the country's insecurity won't allow for it at this point.

RASCOE: And so who is competing for power in his place?

COTO: A lot of people. You have a lot of players in Haiti. You know, there's this - sort of this constant vying for power. But right now, the experts I've spoken with say it's inevitable that gangs are going to be sitting at the table as the country tries to figure out potential new leadership.

RASCOE: What about the regular people who are caught in the middle and are facing all of this violence, upheaval and poverty?

COTO: I think people want to see a transition that they support. They want to see actual movement in terms of general election. But the - in the immediate future, what they want is a bit of economic prosperity but definitely someone to help quell this violence.

RASCOE: What's the U.S. role in all of this right now?

COTO: Publicly, they're taking sort of a step back. They have been encouraging, basically, what is a dragged out resignation. So they're encouraging Ariel Henry, the prime minister, to move toward a transitional council. They've said publicly that they're not asking for him to resign.

But a lot of this push also comes from a regional trade bloc known as Caricom. And these would be - the majority are in the Eastern Caribbean - Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados and other countries including Grenada, Jamaica, St. Kitts and Nevis. And these members of the regional trade bloc also have traveled to Haiti previously before the attacks began in an effort to get, you know, stakeholders together. But they have said that it's become very difficult to get everyone to agree on, you know, a specific solution for Haiti's future.

RASCOE: Associated Press correspondent Danica Coto reporting from San Juan, Puerto Rico. Thank you so much for joining us.

COTO: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LELAND WHITTY'S "IN CIRCLES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.

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